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The legacy of Leopold Wolfsohn

Leopold Wolfsohn. You may look at this name and wonder why it seems vaguely familiar. If you access Leopold Wolfsohn on Google, it will notify you in 0.27 seconds that you have 18,700 results. Of course, as the search continues it gets further away from its initial goal. However, there is a common denominator in the vast majority of sites: Leopold Wolfsohn appears because he was Aaron Copland's first piano teacher. One generation later, he was MY first piano teacher and was a powerful shaping force in my life—guiding my pianistic development for four years.

Howard Pollack, in his book Aaron Copland: the Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, states, "Word of mouth led Copland to Leopold Wolfsohn, who had a studio in Brooklyn at 345 Clinton Avenue. Wolfsohn, with whom he studied from 1913 to 1917, assigned him the standard pedagogical fare: Hanon exercises, Chopin waltzes, Mozart and Beethoven sonatas. According to Copland, he was 'a competent instructor with a well-organized teaching method,' but a routinier kind of man: Chopin was the highlight of his life, and Stravinsky was a madman."1 David Ewen in American Composers Today, quotes Copland: "I distinctly remember with what fear and trembling I knocked on the door of Mr. Leopold Wolfsohn's door on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn—and. . . . all by myself arranged for piano lessons."2

During the four years I studied with Wolfsohn he was an itinerant teacher, going from city to city in Long Island in his old Buick and teaching in students' homes. He explained that he had sustained huge financial losses during the Great Depression and accepted this way of life as logical and practical. (Much later, I realized why the automobiles in The Untouchables episodes looked so familiar.) Wolfsohn catapulted me into challenging repertoire. Not very long after I commenced my studies with him, he gave me such compositions as Mozart's Fantasy in D Minor and Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu and Waltz in C-Sharp Minor. Several years later, when I was twelve and my family was about to move to the Midwest, I was performing such works as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 and several of the more difficult Chopin études.

Leopold Wolfsohn was born on January 6, 1876. Both 1930 and 1940 census reports confirm that his country of origin was Sweden, but nothing else about his pre-New York years has been revealed. The first accounts of his professional activity date back to 1909, where notices of his own recitals and those of his pupils appear in the Brooklyn and New York City newspapers. He was married to Anna (born in Russia in 1881) and their children were Harold (born in 1903) and Viola Wolfsohn Bartelstone (born in 1909). The most significant organization to which he proudly belonged was The Bohemians. Other members during Wolfsohn's era included Leopold Auer, Harold Bauer, Rudolph Ganz, Leopold Godowsky, Jascha Heifetz, Victor Herbert, and Leopold Stokowski. The Bohemians still flourish. In tribute to Wolfsohn's enthusiasm for the organization, I joined several years ago when a close friend of mine became president—even though I will probably never have the opportunity to attend a meeting. 

He was 'a competent instructor with a well-organized teaching method,'  but a routinier kind of man: Chopin was the highlight of his life, and Stravinsky was a madman.

Memories of my lessons with Wolfsohn remain vivid. Not content with giving me only one lesson per week, he would swing by our house at another (usually unannounced) time as well. He wrote detailed instructions on the music score—always in ink—with a huge orange fountain pen. Fingering was especially prominent, and if he disagreed with the published fingering he would obliterate the numbers with broad strokes. If a particular passage needed extra practice, he would write "ten times," "twenty times," or whatever he thought was needed to accomplish a desired result. The repertoire he gave me was considerably more varied than what I stated above regarding Aaron Copland's lessons. Preludes and fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier were frequently assigned, preceded by a number of Two-Part Inventions. Scales and arpeggios were incorporated into the daily routine. Because this endeavor could be boring, I devised a system—effective only when my grandfather was present. I wrote key names on small pieces of paper; on other pieces of paper I wrote major scale, minor scale, major arpeggio, and minor arpeggio. My grandfather would hold one pile in each hand. I would close my eyes and pick one from each set. That action determined what I played! There was a time that, because of the high humidity brought about by the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, the white key coverings of the piano simply fell off and the complete set of white keys had to be returned to the factory for re-gluing. Not daunted by this happening, Wolfsohn assigned me the "Black Key Etude" of Chopin, so I could at least practice with my right hand. Wolfsohn was not modest about his knowledge. When he wished to justify a suggestion—meaning a command—he would raise his eyes heavenward and say, "I know these things so well." Wolfsohn was a prolific composer, writing pieces that were light in character. His Hassidic Dance was dedicated to me.

One day Wolfsohn placed a copy of Lecuona's Malagueña on the music rack. I was astounded to discover that Lecuona was still living; every other piece I played was created by a composer of bygone days. Wolfsohn amplified the score significantly for greater effectiveness, and, incorporating his changes, I performed this piece many times long after my studies with him. During the 1930s, Malagueña had enormous audience appeal, right along with such staples as Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu, Sinding's Rustle of Spring, and Mendelssohn's Spring Song. 

In 1936, I was asked to play on one of the most popular radio programs on the air: Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour. My selection had to be no more than two minutes in length, which was a real challenge. The Fantaisie-Impromptu seemed the best choice to Mr. Wolfsohn, notwithstanding the fact that the B section had to be sliced down to eight measures. Wolfsohn greatly encouraged me to perform as much as possible, and I frequently played at Wolfsohn's student recitals in New York City and in my hometown of Long Beach, Long Island, New York. Two years later, when I was twelve, an opportunity arose for me to appear as soloist with the Nassau-Suffolk Symphony Orchestra—an orchestra created under the WPA (Works Progress Administration) program. Wolfsohn chose the first movement of Beethoven's C-Minor Concerto and gave me every opportunity to prepare thoroughly. He purchased a recording for me—Artur Schnabel performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Malcom Sargent. Fortunately, we had a phonograph with a speed control. I could set the pitch to coincide with my piano. I was then able to rehearse, along with Schnabel, with the London Philharmonic!

All too soon, the time had come for our family to move from Long Beach and reside in Champaign, Illinois. As a parting gift, Wolfsohn gave me beautifully-bound Schirmer volumes of the Beethoven Sonatas. In the first volume, he inscribed, "To Joseph: play these as YOU ONLY can." How could one ever live up to a challenge like that? After our parting, I kept in touch with Wolfsohn frequently. When in New York I would visit him at the Ansonia Hotel, where he had lived for many years. When we corresponded, he would often end a letter with "I'm still composing, not decomposing!" In July 1966, I received a letter from Wolfsohn's lawyer, announcing his death at the age of ninety and confirming, "He was a gentleman of the old school."

Codetta: Of course I carried the Beethoven sonata volumes with great pride, and when I studied a Beethoven sonata with my new teacher (who was a member of the University of Illinois music faculty) I used these volumes. From time to time, he mentioned that I really should get the Schnabel edition, because the editing was superior. I kept procrastinating, and finally, at a lesson, my teacher kicked the wall vigorously and muttered a mild, but forceful, curse (actually, the words did not seem mild to my thirteen-year-old ears. I had heard them before, but not in a musical context). I learned an important lesson from this experience, one that served me well in the future: NEVER ignore a teacher's request. 

1Pollack, H. (1999). Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man.
New York: Henry Holt and Company, p. 32.

2Ewen, D. (1949). American Composers Today. New York: Wilson, p. 68.Enter your text here ...

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